Chol paved the way for a growing contingent of academy alumni at Wake Forest and seemed to relish that role, bringing passionate leadership to his team on and off the field. His joy, skill, and willingness to work hard will make him an instant fan favorite. By all accounts, the team kept close contact with Chol during his four years at Wake Forest leading to a growing interest in his return over his final two years with the Demon Deacons. To facilitate that, Atlanta United signed him as the 10th Homegrown player to prevent losing him in the MLS Superdraft. By signing his first professional contract with Atlanta United, Chol will pave the way for Academy graduates, once again, but this time for the road back to Atlanta.
Based on recent reports, the next wave could come very soon with Bryce Washington rumored to return by May and a strong core of Juniors like Charlie Asensio and Justin Garces potentially following them by this time in 2022.
Since we now know that Atlanta United intend to fill their Homegrown roster spots with former college players along with academy players, let’s take a look at the college player pool to determine who the team may be interested in bringing back.
A bit of news nearly lost in celebrating Machop Chol’s return to Atlanta United is that his former teammate, University of Pittsburgh senior centerback Bryce Washington, may also be returning this spring.
Atlanta United is not expected to sign Washington before the 2021 MLS season, but has retained its homegrown player rights to Washington, and will have until May to exercise those rights under new MLS guidelines covering Homegrown Player rights. Washington will stay at Pittsburgh and play the upcoming spring season.
Washington would be the second member of Atlanta United’s first-class of college seniors to return to the club.
After beginning his college career at Rutgers, Washington transferred to Pittsburgh where he made an immediate impact with his leadership at the center of Pittsburgh’s defense. After helping his team to the ACC Conference finals, Washington may remain with the University of Pittsburgh through their upcoming NCAA Championship title run in April.
Captain of his academy teams from 2016 to 2018, including the 2017 United States Soccer Development Academy U17 National Championship team, and a member of the 2017 US U-17 Training Camp squad, Crain immediately made an impact in his freshman season by logging the third-highest minutes of any player for Brown. The 6’1” Junior lost his Sophomore season to injury and will attempt to get his development back on track when the Ivy League resumes competition in 2021. Crain has a great deal of talent and intelligence as a defender and could be a valuable addition to Atlanta United in 2022 or 2023 once he completes his collegiate career.
Crain already has some professional experience with Atlanta United, starting several matches for the 2’s in 2018 before departing for college.
Kendall Edwards is still potentially a top defender of his class but he has yet to have enough minutes to show it. Edwards was the first academy player to join Atlanta United’s USL side in their inaugural season and continue to make regular starts in 2019 ahead of his first college season. Due to his heavy workload from his academy and USL teams, Edwards was eased into the NC State lineup so as to not burn out their new young star.
In his second season with the Wolfpack, Edwards once again played limited minutes. Aside from playing a full overtime scoreless draw against rivals UNC, Edwards managed only an additional 43 minutes across three other matches. There may have been an undisclosed injury that could have delayed the start of his season to the end of October, but we simply do not have that information. Edwards should get more opportunities to play in the Spring, and then hope to have a strong Junior season next fall.
Garrison Tubbs benefitted immensely from his 2s experience. Tubbs earned his place with the 2’s in 2019 alongside George Campbell and cemented his place as a regular starter in 2020 alongside team captain Mo Jadama. Ahead of the 2020 USL season, Tubbs was part of a trio of academy players sent to train with Aberdeen during the winter. The experience seems to have helped Tubbs as he returned even more polished and refined as a defender than before. Tubbs is a lanky and athletic central defender with good recovery speed and improving distribution.
When Tubbs left Atlanta United for Wake Forest University, he was immediately called upon early in his Freshman season when redshirt senior Michael DeShields went down with a season-ending neck injury. Now with DeShields leaving in the draft, Coach Bobby Muuss will rely on his new defender to anchor the defense of one of the best teams in the country. Tubbs performed well over his first eight starts and helped the defense hold opponents to just five goals over those starts. If it had not been for an untimely positive test of the coronavirus, Tubbs could have helped Wake Forest advance deeper in the ACC Tournament than their early exit against the University of Virginia.
Tubbs could certainly stay with Wake Forest and continue to grow in their high-quality atmosphere, but it may be better for him to join the professional ranks soon. We could see Atlanta United offer Tubbs a contract sooner rather than later, potentially ahead of the 2022 MLS season.
In his second season, Suzuki became a starter in the Demon Deacons’ central midfield following the departure of a prolific class of prospects to MLS and USL. He started all nine matches as the defensive holding midfielder in Coach Bobby Muuss’s 3-man midfield system.
Suzuki plays a position of need for Atlanta United as a defensive midfielder. Heinze’s system requires an athletic and adept ball-handling #6 who can drop between the central defenders while also providing a metronomic presence in guiding the ball forward like what we had with Darlington Nagbe. Suzuki can play that position, but the role that he plays at Wake Forest is more similar to the roving and active defensive midfielder we saw in Carlos Carmona. In 2020, Suzuki mostly paired with central midfielder Isaiah Parente to great effect. Both players are active defenders and capable game managers who can sit deep or play box-to-box as facilitators.
Current academy prospect Will Reilly plays a version of that position similar to what Michael Bradley plays and I could see Suzuki and Reilly playing a similar role if they were to sign professional deals with Atlanta United. The club may want to give Suzuki the full four years with Wake Forest but strong performances alongside Garrison Tubbs and Omar Hernandez in the Spring and Fall could force the team’s hand ahead of the 2022 Superdraft.
It was a huge deal for Atlanta United to land Justin Garces in their academy after he relocated from his South Florida club. Garces has played extensively for the United States’s youth program and went on to represent Atlanta United alongside Andrew Carleton and Chris Goslin with the U-17s. More recently, Garces has made camp appearances with the U-20s and the U-19s following his sole youth World Cup experience with the U-17s in India.
For such a touted player, he may have gotten some bad luck with his college program. UCLA has historically been a strong soccer school but has had a porous defense during Garces’ tenure leading to him making a career-high 58 saves last season including two shut-outs in a year and a career-high 10 saves against Cal. Overall, UCLA only managed a 6-8-3 record in his second season as a starter, even though he ranked second in the Pac-12 in goalie minutes played, saves, and saves per game (3.2).
As the Pac-12 season prepares to begin this Spring, Garces will attempt to resurrect UCLA’s men’s soccer program, but even if that is not in the cards, he should get plenty of reps in the net and will likely face a lot more shots. He will need this experience as Atlanta United will likely count on him in 2022 as Alec Kann’s heir to the #2 keeper position until Vicente Reyes is ready to compete for the job.
Charlie Asensio is solid.
Charlie has played an integral role for the Tigers beginning with his freshman year in 2018. He started 16 of the 17 matches he played on his way to being honored as a member of the ACC All-Freshman team. Asensio went on to feature prominently for Clemson helping the team to 10 shutouts in 22 matches in his second season and tallying his 45th cap in his Junior campaign. Asensio attributes his early success to his time with Atlanta United where he was part of a select few players who got to train with the first team.
Asensio is a quick and experienced fullback who just helped lead Clemson to the 2020 ACC Championship. Asensio started all ten matches for the Tigers and used his athleticism and intelligence to effectively position himself to take away opportunities for opposing sides on his flank while playing key passes to spring the Clemson counter-attack. Asensio’s solid Junior ACC campaign earned him a #24 overall ranking by Soccerwire among Fall season players.
Charlie will likely return to Clemson for his senior season and will become a coveted senior for many domestic professional squads due to his experience with the USA U-17 Residency Program, Atlanta United’s academy, and a top-tier college program. Charlie’s floor is a Mikey Ambrose kind of contributor for an MLS team or a Jack Metcalf leader for a USL Championship team but he is capable of growing into more. Look for him to continue filling a valuable leadership role for wherever he plays next.
Have yourself a season, James Brighton.
Brighton entered his redshirt sophomore season hungry for minutes and for goals. In 2019, Brighton had a highly productive freshman campaign playing behind the first overall 2020 Superdraft Pick Robbie Robinson, scoring six goals and tallying 2 assists across 21 appearances and 11 starts. Brighton returned as Robinson’s potential heir for Clemson and could see himself grow into a regular starter by his junior campaign.
Brighton is a big man with a big personality. He is the clear emotional leader for this Clemson team, and despite playing more of a super-sub role, Brighton was named one of the team’s captains in the preseason and wore that honor on his sleeve all year, doing everything he could on and off of the field to motivate his teammates to a strong season.
In his sophomore year, he needed to replace Robbie Robinson’s knack for coming up big in key situations, and in a deadlocked ACC Championship, Brighton opened the floodgates by out-jumping former academy teammate Bryce Washington for the go-ahead goal.
Brighton scored four goals in ten matches (5 starts) with two of those goals being game-winners. He peppered opposing goalkeepers with 19 shots (13 on goal) for the second-most on the team behind senior forward Kimarni Smith. With Smith heading to the Superdraft and attacking midfielder Grayson Barber departing on a Homegrown contract with Sporting Kansas City, the scoring duties on the team now fall to team captain James Brighton. Brighton is more than capable of taking on this role and will likely relish the opportunity to shine.
Liam Butts had himself quite a freshman season: United Soccer Coaches All-North Region second-team honors, first-team All-Big Ten Conference, Big-Ten All-Freshman Team, and five game-winning goals (most in Big Ten Conference and 16th nationally) of his nine total goals. He did all of this in his first season.
Butts is used to winning. Prior to attending Penn State, Butts won the 2016-2017 national title with Atlanta United’s U-17 academy team along with multiple state and regional titles with GSA 01 Phoenix. Liam is a big and technical forward with a decent burst of speed. The Lawrenceville native enters his sophomore season as the de facto starter at forward for the Nittany Lions and potentially one of the most dangerous attackers in the Big 10.
The start to Penn State’s season was delayed due to COVID so we will get our first look at Liam Butts as a college veteran this spring. He will attempt to build off of his impressive first season and will likely garner serious Generation Adidas interest if Atlanta United do not exercise their rights over him ahead of the 2022 Superdraft.
Academy stars and Atlanta United 2 regulars, Coleman Gannon and Will Reilly could soon be joining this list if Atlanta United does not sign them by this summer. Coleman Gannon is all set to leave for a strong University of Indiana program and Will Reilly will soon be departing for Stanford University, a perennial West Coast powerhouse. With Atlanta United showing their willingness to reward players who excel at the college level, this path may become more enticing for academy players who may not be ready to compete for first-team minutes by their 18th birthday.
There are a lot of talented players who did not make it onto this list but could still be in consideration by the club. To keep up with their development, be sure to tune into their matches on ESPN+ and check back here for updates throughout the season.